Helen Bechdel the Hero?
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s mother, Helen Bechdel, is difficult to empathize with: Helen rarely shows signs of affection or love towards her daughter or family. The idea of a mother uninterested in her own children and husband seems unnatural; so, Helen looks like a bad mother. Yet, Judith Thurman and Alysia Abbott help show Helen Bechdel in a new perspective. In Thurman’s “Drawn from Life” and Abbott’s “’We Just Sat and Held Each Other’: How It Feels to Watch Your Life Story Onstage,” Helen’s storyline becomes thought provoking. In an interview, Bechdel calls her mother a “hero” (Abbott). If Bechdel wants us to think of her mom as a graceful hero, why does Helen rarely show moments of maternal behavior in Fun Home?
The typical mother is thought of as a woman with a warm smile and inviting hug. Yet, Bechdel draws her mother with severe cheekbones and judgmental eyebrows, a pointy nose and a disapproving pursed lip that makes her look consistently annoyed. Helen’s eyes are either in a glaring anger or looking away from the rest of the family. Alison never heard her parents use “terms of endearment” (Bechdel 68); and Helen never shows affection towards anyone in her family, including her husband. All the details of her appearance make Helen appear uninterested in, even angered by, her own family. Stereotypically, the mother is like the glue holding the family together. In the case of Bechdel’s family, her mother’s absence keeps the family from bonding.
When thinking of a typical family, the kitchen is the hub of interaction; it’s a time for the whole family to be together and talk. Alison’s family co-inhabits their kitchen but avoids directly interacting with one another; Alison goes so far to call the space an “artic climate” (Bechdel 67). The one time there is conversation between Alison’s parents in the kitchen, it is hostile and short (Bechdel 68). The cold description of the family is just another example of how Alison’s family lacks the typical loving family feeling. According to the time-period, the mother is supposed to be the person who runs the house; so, if the house is distant and cold, is it Helen’s fault?
Alison refers to her mother as “Morticia,” a fictional character from the Addams Family (Bechdel 35). Morticia is known for her pale skin, dark hair, musical talents, and gothic nature (Wikia). You think this is offensive to Helen, but when talking to her daughter Helen calls herself a “vampire” because she doesn’t want to go outside (Bechdel 35). These descriptions paint a cold and emotionless picture of Helen. In contrast to what is expected from Helen the vampire, Thurman quotes another woman, “[Helen] brags about Alison to other people, for example, but won’t praise her in person.” This is surprising because Helen chose to express pride in her daughter to other people, yet she isn’t praising Alison directly.
When the children go on fun trips they typically go with their dad and Helen stays at home. Helen’s consistent absence from her children’s lives feels concerning. Throughout Fun Home, Helen is busy with her own art. Helen spends more time preparing for her various roles in theatre productions than talking to her children; and if she is talking to Alison they are typically running lines. Thurman points out that “Helen took refuge in her music and her acting” to avoid “[being] suffocated by domesticity and crushed by the weight of [her] own disappointments.” She didn’t know she would lose her dream when she married her husband; and having children replaced that dream immediately.
It is Alison’s father who plays the stereotypical “mother.” He is the one pushing Alison to wear pearl necklaces and fashionable clothing (Bechdel 98-99). On page 98, the two frames are of Alison and her father are arguing about her outfits two different times seven years apart. Helen is in both frames, but she is refraining from partaking in the argument. All she does is criticize her husband’s over-the-top outfit, and seven years later she is in the background not engaging in the conversation (Bechdel 99). On the surface, it looks like Helen does not care about what her daughter and husband are arguing about; but looking deeper, because of her husband’s femininity, maybe Helen feels that her husband is being a better stereotypical mother than she can be.
Based on the majority of Bechdel’s drawings, it’s easy to see the distance between Alison and her Mother. Throughout Fun HomeBechdel rarely draws Helen looking directly at Alison. Yet, if you really focus, you see Helen become a loving mother when her daughter needs her most. Alison develops severe OCD during her childhood. Impressively, Helen notices Alison’s abnormal behavior and takes it upon herself to cure her daughter. In the picture above, Helen is sitting with her daughter reading a book. Helen is trying to help her daughter in the best way she knows, through literature, the only way the Bechdel family personally relates to one another. Alison regularly keeps a diary but when her OCD begins to affect her ability to write, Helen “took dictation” until Alison got her OCD under control (Bechdel 149). In the picture below, Helen is now physically closer to her daughter and listening to everything Alison wants to put in her diary. A huge step is taken towards a typical mother-daughter relationship. Before the OCD Bechdel never drew Alison and Helen discussing the events of Alison’s day but now Helen isn’t only helping her daughter but is also focusing on her daughter as well.
The Bechdel family dynamic is hard to understand. Thurman acknowledges “both [the Bechdel] parents … manage to convey the same message: Don’t let children or domestic life interfere with your art” (Thurman). Alison and her brothers live in a house with two parents who never achieve their dreams. Yet, neither of them ever gives up practicing their dreams on a small scale. In an interview Alison Bechdel says, “I feel like my mother was a prisoner of her generation in the same way my father was. She couldn’t leave that marriage” (Abbott).Alison’s mother wants to be free of her marriage but is unable to get a divorce; she was once a woman with a dream, but she willingly pushed her hopes aside for her marriage that ends up feeling fake.As Alison grows up her mother starts to open up to her about her husband’s affairs, shop-lifting, and lies (Bechdel 216). In this moment Helen’s vulnerability makes her feel more human to Alison.
Helen had built up a shield to protect herself but isolated her children in the process. In an interview later in Bechdel’s life, she says “I feel like my mother was kind of a hero. I mean, I think of her as a hero. I think she comes across as someone who’s dealing with a really challenging situation in a graceful way” (Abbott). Looking back at the circumstances Helen has to struggle with she was the hero of her own story. When Alison’s OCD tendencies became severe her mother is there ready to help her (Bechdel 138). She is a supportive and effective mother for Helen in her own way. Having her children read lines from plays with her is her way of bonding with them, not selfishly using them. Both Thurman and Abbott helped show Helen wasn’t unfit to be a mother, she was an atypical mother.
Abbott, Alysia. “’We Just Sat and Held Each Other’: How It Feels to Watch Your Life Story Onstage.” The Atlantic, 12 Nov. 2013, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/11/we-just-sat-and-held-each-other-how-it-feels-to-watch-your-life-story-onstage/281369/.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. Mariner Books, 2007.
“Morticia Addams.” Addams Family Wiki, addamsfamily.wikia.com/wiki/Morticia_Addams.
Thurman, Judith. “Drawn from Life.” The New Yorker, 23 Apr. 2012, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/04/23/drawn-from-life.